Students studying outside the library

Ten Questions for the Religion Department: Dr. Katherine Janiec Jones

1. Who are three teachers who’ve had a particularly significant impact on you, and (briefly for each) how have they impacted you?

1 –Bill Pell – I was lucky enough to be taught by Mr. Pell twice when I was in high school: once in 10th grade and once in 12th grade. He taught me how to write. What a gifted and engaging teacher. He nurtured my love of literature and took my ideas seriously. I blame my love affair with the semicolon on him.

2 – Paul J. Griffiths – It’s very hard to be brief about this teacher. He is one of the smartest and kindest people I’ve ever met. He has a razor-sharp mind and writes like a dream, but he has never made me feel like an idiot (at least intentionally) or been remotely mean-spirited. Rigorous, yes. Mean-spirited or petty? Never. I still catch myself using “Paul-isms” in my writing all the time.

3 – Karl Plank and Bill Mahony at Davidson College - I know. I was just supposed to list three. I am rationalizing my inability to decide by thinking in terms of three institutions (high school, college, graduate school) instead. Both Dr. Plank and Dr. Mahoney were incredibly good teachers and introduced me to texts and to ways of thinking that have indelibly marked my thought processes. I still have my notebooks from their courses and used them as models when I first started teaching.

2. What are your ten desert island discs?

I have thought way, way too hard about this one. Am I am in a shipwreck scenario? Or have I chosen to go to this desert island to unwind? So many questions. So many factors.

1 - Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto no. 3 (actually, I’d probably want to make a mixtape-disc with the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35 and the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64 on it as well)
2 - Joni Mitchell, Blue
3 - Jake Shimabukuro, Peace, Love, Ukulele
4 - Nickel Creek, This Side
5 - anything with Ella Fitzgerald
6 - the Hamilton cast album
7 - Rimsky-Korsakov, Scheherazade
8 - Aretha Franklin, 30 Greatest Hits
9 - Stevie Wonder, Song Review: A Greatest Hits Collection
10 - Keb’ Mo’, The Door
(Also smuggled onto the island: Queen, Greatest Hits; Tedeschi Trucks Band, Revelator; Eric Clapton, Unplugged)

3. What is one book that has changed you, and how did it change you?

Martin Buber’s I and Thou. It changed the way I understand what it means to love, how I think about God, helped me understand Buddhism –it reshaped my entire way of interacting with the world. Every time I read it I find something new. (I also find parts I don’t quite understand, and parts I thought I understood, but don’t anymore.)

4. Fill in the blank: “I am good at making ________________.”

A mess. Also, music.

5. What are the three research projects that you are currently most interested in working on?

1 - I am in the middle of writing a book tentatively entitled, Shall I Wear Heels While I Breastfeed? Feminine Liminality in 21 st Century American Popular Culture. I’ve drafted quite a bit of it, but life has intervened over the last few summers and I haven’t worked on it in a while. I am very eager to get back to it. I keep saving relevant news articles and other sources I find, and I’m running out of space on all of my electronic devices. (I would probably run out of space anyway, but I like to think it’s because of research.)

2 - I am working on a piece that explores the gender dynamics in the academy – specifically with regard to philosophy (of religion) and Buddhist studies. I’ve thought about this for a long time, and a writing project in which I’m currently engaged with a group of friends from graduate school has given me the impetus to put some thoughts on paper.

3 – I am very interested in issues related to interfaith studies, religious pluralism, and comparative philosophy and theology. In particular, I’m interested in pedagogical issues surrounding these topics.

4 – I’m going to put in a fourth one that’s more personal and less academic. Two things I’ve been working on are related to some caregiving I’ve been doing over the last few years for my parents. I have had to sell both parents’ houses and decide what to do with all of their things. Not only have I found (or rediscovered) some incredible documents, pictures, and other things; I’ve been processing my own relationship with history, with family, and with stuff in general – with objects. What do I want to keep, and why? In the process, I’ve become even more interested in genealogy, how archives work, and immigration patterns. Digging around on is something I do for fun during my downtime now. I’ve also written a few essays about watching one’s parents descend into dementia, and about illness and caregiving in general. I submitted one of them and got it back for revisions, but I have to be in the right frame of mind to work on it. It’s pretty close to the bone.

6. If time allowed for you do so, what is the one TV series (whether you’ve seen it before or not) that you would watch in its entirety? Why? 

I feel like I should say something cool and edgy. But I think I would watch Scandal, start to finish. And I would have excellent snacks and would wear stretchy pants.

7. In the last five years (or so), what is one way that your thinking about religion has changed?

This one is tough to put into words. I used to have very clear ideas about dividing lines between what I understood “theology” to be and what I took “religious studies” to be. Those lines don’t look quite the same as they used to in my mind. I think I am more openhearted and generous with my assumptions about people than I used to be. At least I hope I am. I think my earlier internal barriers had to do with my own fears and insecurities after graduate school. I was very well-trained in terms of thinking of counter-arguments for everything, including arguments I wanted to make. I was so acutely aware of every possible way to critique my own ideas that it almost cowed me into silence. I was very aware of how things I said or wrote would be perceived, primarily, I think, because of fears of judgment within the academy. Now, blessed with some life-mileage, I don’t care so much about that anymore. I do still worry about how things I say or write will be perceived, but more because I want to communicate well and never be (knowingly) hurtful. I try to take a “first, do no harm” approach. I am very interested in people who live in the margins – of religious traditions, of gender identity, of cultural identity – and when one is in the margins, it’s so easy for words to be misconstrued and hurtful. What I’m trying to say, I suppose, is that I used to be careful because I was being self-protective and was motivated largely by fear of judgment. Now I’m careful, but I’m not frightened into silence. And my ethic of care has shifted in its nuance as well. I mean this both in terms of how I teach, talk, and write about religion, but also in terms of my own “religiousness,” I suppose – if, by that, one means one’s ethic towards others and one’s self.

8. What movie have you seen the most times, and why do you like it so much?

When Prince died, I started thinking about the fact that I saw Purple Rain over and over again when it came out in the 80s. I’m afraid to watch it again now, though, because I realize it’s probably not a great movie. I’d rather remember the hazy ethos around it. My memories of it are great. I’ve also seen I Heart Huckabees a gajillion times because I use it in my teaching, and because I just love it. It’s so smart, so funny, and illustrates a lot of Buddhist ideas in ways that are fantastic and creative.

9. What is one class you haven’t gotten to teach yet, but you want to be able to do?

“Readings in Mahayana Buddhist Texts”

10. When you were in high school, what did you want to be?

I wanted to be a diplomat and work with the Foreign Service. I also wanted to perform on Broadway, but somehow diplomacy seemed like surer thing.